Summer 1967, Age 15
I woke to sounds of clattering from the tiny kitchen area a few feet from my head. Mother was boiling the kettle for tea and making porridge. In the transition between sleeping and wakefulness, I felt a churning mix of peace and alarm. Half asleep, I imagined I was a child; someone was making my breakfast. As my eyes opened, reality hit: the claustrophobic caravan, the smell of paraffin and Mother’s overpowering presence. Even with her back to me, I sensed her edgy energy; like the porridge, she might over-boil any moment. Be careful!
Mother saw I was awake. “Get up, Moey. Go tell the others breakfast is ready.”
I dressed and went outside into a pale gray day. There I found John and Osman huddled asleep in the back of the van and banged on the side to get their attention. We collected bowls and cups from the caravan and ate porridge and drank tea leaning against the van. John was already scheming how to get the vehicle running. Once we got it started, we could drive far away—fast.
After breakfast, John went into the caravan to confer with Mother. Immediately, Osman and I heard raised voices: the row escalated fast. Finally John yelled at the top of his voice, “You stupid, fucking cow. What were you thinking?”
Osman’s eyes widened in horror. Clearly embarrassed, he wandered off down the lane. John stormed out of the caravan, slamming the door. Face flushed with anger, he came over to me, shakily lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“That stupid woman She’s no fucking clue—didn’t even bother to fill it with petrol. It’s been sitting there for months!” John gasped out the words between deep drags on his cigarette.
The storm passed but it left John in a smoldering mood. He wrenched open the bonnet and set to work fiddling with the engine, muttering to himself. Over the morning, he and Osman made trips to the local garage to borrow tools, get the battery charged and collect a can of petrol. I hung around uselessly.
By afternoon, John managed to get the engine to cough a few times, but it wouldn’t catch. Finally, he gave up in disgust. The van sat there, rusted and spent, surrounded by trampled nettles. With no means of escape, we were stuck in Dungarvan.
Dreary days ran into each other. Mother handed out endless lists of chores: fetch the water, do the shopping, clean the windows, dig the shit-pit—and on and on. In self-defense we developed strategies to evade her demands, wandering around the town and drinking cups of weak coffee at the local café.
Dungarvan was an old fishing town sinking slowly into dilapidation. At one time, the quays had been alive with boats, nets and fishermen. Now they were empty, the bay clogged with muddy silt, the fish gone elsewhere. The main employer in town was the leather factory, a foul-smelling warren of warehouses on the waterfront that sent a steady stream of florescent green and red effluent into the bay’s muddy water.
Along from the tannery was the 14th century castle that housed the Garda barracks. From there, a tangle of lanes and alleyways connected the quays to Main Street and Grattan Square, the focus of town life. Around the square stood half a dozen pubs, Lawlors hotel and random small shops, many of which peered dead-eyed out of dusty windows. Others hung on grimly, their bright paint faded and flaking.
People were friendly to a fault: everyone made eye contact and nodded on the street. Many stopped to chat about the weather or to ask the question that set my teeth on edge: “How is your mother?” Mrs. Evans was well known in town and obviously a subject of gossip. The Evanses had been prosperous members of the community; now look how far they’d fallen! I dreaded the solicitous and sympathetic questions. Couldn’t they just leave us alone?
Osman, on the other hand, lapped up the attention. Within days, he became a minor celebrity: people asked where he came from and how he liked Ireland. With his ready smile and amiable nature, he soon became a magnet for the local children. They’d rush over and ask giggling questions: “Hey mister, do you come from Africa? Did you get burnt by the sun? Are you brown all over, even under your clothes?” When their cheeky questions got too much, John shooed them away with mock ferocity: “Feck off, you little beggers.” They’d run away, only to follow at a distance, a sniggering tribe of pigmies.
Late in the evening, the town shook itself into a semblance of life. Groups congregated outside the two movie theatres and the pubs filled with drably dressed men. Each time a pub door opened, the sounds of singing voices or piped Irish music burst into the street. We sat in the snug at Keane’s, nurturing our single pint of Black Velvet and smoking the long evenings away. Near closing time, we joined the queue outside the chippie and stuffed ourselves with steaming cod and chips—thick and crispy with a creamy center—all wrapped up in newspaper. Mother was often asleep or drowsy with drink when we got back to the caravan, so we could sneak to bed without a battle.
By the end of the week, John and Osman were ready to leave. They had a good excuse: work was waiting at the Star of India and it might take days to hitchhike back to Cardiff. At first we all assumed I’d go back with them—but I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have school until September and I couldn’t face Cardiff with nothing to do. Much as I found the caravan and Mother distasteful, at least it was a change—and I desperately needed a change.
Early the next morning, John and Osman climbed onto the Waterford bus. As John took his seat, I felt relief: no more explosive blow-ups. It was harder to see Osman leave—he was an anchor of sanity. I’d almost laughed when he’d said to Mother, “Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. Evans.” He meant it! As Osman waved from the bus, realization hit: I was alone with Mother.
Living with Mother wasn’t dreadful all the time. Some things were quite pleasant, like sleeping, eating and reading. Each day was similar: long hours of reading punctuated by meals, unreasonable demands and humiliating chores.
Being fifteen was tiring. I slept as long as possible, head under the blankets, hovering between sleep and wakefulness, floating timelessly on a dreamy current of warmth, resisting that last jerk into consciousness. I loved to sleep, and Mother needed to recover from her drinking, so we seldom got up before late morning.
Waking up was not so pleasant. As my eyes opened, there was Mother three feet away—sometimes just the back of her head but often a view of her face with mouth slack, snoring gently. She looked older than 45, battered and frayed by life. Her nose bent off to the left, a reminder of some drunken fall or maybe a fight with Dad. Between her eyebrows was a deep dark crevice: a permanent frown. It was a semi-healed scar from an operation during World War II. Doctors had tried an experimental approach and cut away the frontal bone to get rid of sinus polyps.
In the morning light, the pockmarks on her skin looked like tiny shadowed craters. Mother had a romantic explanation for those scars: they were caused by dirt and dust driven deep into her skin when she was bombed during the London Blitz. Dad said it was from picking her pimples.
Before she woke, I slipped out from under my blankets and tiptoed the length of the caravan. Checking no one was around I went outside for a quick pee against the wall. Climbing back inside, the door closed with a metal shriek and Mother stirred.
Half awake, Mother sat up and fumbled around the clutter on the cupboard for the red and silver tube of Veganin: a painkiller blend of acetaminophen, codeine and caffeine. She rattled two pills from the tube and chewed them dry. Now she was almost ready for the day and more than ready to nag at me.
“For God’s sake, Owen, keep the noise down. Go put the kettle on” The timbre of her voice was harsh and grating, lacking softer resonances because to her missing sinuses. She always sounded irritated.
First I filled the kettle from a metal bucket outside the door. It was essential to never spill a drop: empty buckets meant collecting more water, my most dreaded chores. Mortified to be seen near the caravan, I kept an eye out for passers by.
Inside, free from judgmental eyes, I took my time lighting the tricky Primus stove. Once a hot blue flame appeared, I could put on the kettle, wait for the water to boil and make a pot of Barry’s tea.
With a cup of tea and a first cigarette, Mother began to perk up. Her drinking did not start until the afternoon, so morning was a time for reading. After we cleaned up, each of us settled down for a reading binge, mirror images lounging on our bed-seats propped up by pillows with our books in our hands.
I found her hands fascinating and disturbing. The thin fingers had a rubbery look—‘double-jointed’ she called it. They bent backward when she held a cigarette, turned a page or reached for her glass. Her left hand was somewhat contorted with a thick white scar on the wrist; the right hand was relatively normal with a fainter wrist scar. The scars were reminders of the time she’d tried to kill herself in the kitchen of the Lodge.
I’d awoken to the see the aftermath: a bright red spatter across the ceiling; blood-soaked calfskin gloves and a stained kitchen knife on the table. Mummy had come home drunk and slashed both her wrists. She’d screamed, waking Dad and Dilly. They’d staunched the bleeding and taken her to hospital. When I came home from school that afternoon, she was sitting on the couch with bandaged wrists, smoking a cigarette—no different than ever.
In the caravan, the most effective way to ignore Mother’s presence was to get stuck into a book. Reading was a drug, a way to escape from tedious reality for a few hours, a few days—all my lifetime. I lost myself in science fiction and horror stories. Mother, on the other hand was not so picky: she read everything that had even the slightest literary merit. Her appetite for books was voracious and insatiable.
Surprisingly, Dungarvan boasted a well-stocked library and the librarian was friendly and helpful. Once or twice a week, Mother set off to collect the maximum of two books she could legitimately take out of the library. Initially, I went with her but it soon gave me the heebie-jeebies. At every single visit Mother hid extra books under her raincoat. She was good friends with the librarian, so they chatted away for ages. All the time, Mother leaned against the counter with stolen books nestled tightly under each arm.
The books accumulated. She had a vague intention to sneak them back into the library, but it never happened. Every space and surface in the caravan overflowed with library hardbacks: stacks of books covered the end cupboard; books filled bags at its foot; books grew steadily green with mold under the bed-seats; there were even boxes of rotting books underneath the caravan. The mountains of stolen books haunted me: What if someone found out about them? What then? On the positive side, I had half a library to choose from; if I wished, I could read to eternity.
As well as reading, Mother was passionate about music. Somewhere in a derelict warehouse down by the quay, her gramophone records were stored: hundreds of black vinyl LPs and brittle 78s in cardboard sleeves—old popular songs, the complete works of Mozart and Beethoven plus the famous operas. When I was young, operatic voices would wake me in the middle of the night, warning me that mummy was in one of her moods again. She was washing the clothes, singing along to Verdi and Puccini. At least there was no record player in the caravan: I hated opera with a vengeance.
Before the War, before she married, Mother was educated on the continent. She attended finishing school in Lucerne, Switzerland; she spoke fluent French and Italian; she attended the Sorbonne in Paris. Occasionally, after a few drinks, her brain slipped track and a string of rounded foreign syllables flowed off her tongue. That only happened when she was in a good mood—which was seldom. More often her voice was edgy with irritation, particularly when she tried to get me to do chores.
Mother would look up from her book, take off her blue-framed glasses and make the first move in our game of stalker and hounded.
“We’re running low on milk. You need to pop down to Mahoney’s.” With no fridge, we had to buy small amounts of food almost every day.
“OK. OK. I’ll go in a minute. I just need to finish this chapter,” I mumbled, not looking up from my book. Uneasy silence descended as Mother returned to her reading.
Fifteen minutes later, she made the next move. Face fixed with determination, green eyes flashing with restrained annoyance, she started scribbling on a note pad.
“Here’s the list. You’d better go now before Bob closes. Put it on the account.”
A dark ominous cloud enveloped me, making it hard to concentrate. There was no escape—but I had to try to evade her trap.
“I can do it after lunch. I want to finish this.” A whine crept into my voice.
“Don’t be stupid: it’s Wednesday—half-day closing. You’ve got to do it now—go on, get ready. And make sure the bacon is cut five.” She was fussy about the smoked bacon; it had to be sliced thin to fry up crispy.
“Pick up a bottle of Emu and a pack of cigarettes from Michael Cullinan on your way back. He’ll be pleased to see you. And check the buckets. I think we’re nearly out of water.”
Dread slithered through my body, settling like a lump in my stomach. I’d delayed as long as I could—but the outcome was inevitable. Bundling up the heavy string bags into a tight ball, I left the womb of the caravan and headed down Church Street, trying to be invisible. The outward journey wasn’t so bad: I could pretend I was going for a walk. Coming back with heavy bags overflowing with shopping was a torment of humiliation.
At least she hadn’t asked for Veganin. The man at the chemist shop always gave me a hard look as he handed me the red and white box. One time he’d commented, “You know, Veganin is a very strong pain medication. It’s not good to take it regularly.” Obviously he hadn’t the courage to tell Mother face-to-face.
I sorted through the errands in my mind: best to get the bacon first. Liam Morrissey: Butcher was on the corner of the Square, a large open shop with sawdust on the floor and hunks of meat hanging from hooks. All the Morrissey family, male and female, had ruddy freckled faces topped with curly copper hair. I rather fancied the youngest daughter, Carmel, but it was less awkward if her father served me.
I caught his eye. “A quarter pound of smoked streaky, cut five, please.” Liam, a big muscular man with a red-veined face, lifted the dark slab onto the mechanical slicer and pealed off a few thin slices. He wrapped them deftly in white paper and I paid him a couple of shillings.
“How is your mother?” he asked.
I muttered, “Fine, thank you.” What was I to say? That she was driving me crazy! With a few more ritual pleasantries, I headed down Main Street to Bob Mahoney’s.
I liked Bob Mahoney, appreciated his good humor and kindness but I knew his kindness was tinged with pity. He served each customer with grace and pleasure, always smiling, always thoughtful and, like the perfect grocer, he was a true artist with brown paper and string. As he chatted with a customer, every single item of food was transformed into a perfectly folded parcel neatly tied with twine, including a loop to carry with two fingers. It was like watching a magic trick.
I consulted Mother’s list. “A quarter of butter, four sausages, a small loaf, a small bottle of milk, a quarter pound of sugar, four eggs and a small packet of Barry’s tea.” Now for the hardest part, “Can you put it on the account, please?”
“Of course.” Bob smiled as if it was fine—but it was not fine. We knew Bob’s wife was sick with cancer and they were struggling financially. Many people, Mother included, depended on his generosity to stretch finances from one payday to the next. Bob never complained, but at the end of the month he would gently ask for payment.
“How is your mother? I haven’t seen her for a while.” That question again, but from Bob it was genuine. I noticed he slipped an extra sausage into the package.
“She’s doing well, thank you.” I tried to respond pleasantly—he deserved that.
“And John, I suppose he’ll be back in Wales with your friend by now.” I nodded, though I hadn’t a clue.
“How long will you be staying? I’m sure your mother appreciates the help.” That stopped me in my tracks. How long was I staying? I’d forgotten to think about it—completely slipped my mind.
“Oh, another couple of weeks. I have to get back to school.” That sounded right. I handed him the string bag and he packed everything neatly inside.
“There you are now; everything ready to go. Give my regards to your mother.” He handed me the heavy bag and with a thank you, I slid out of the shop and breathed a sigh of relief. Bob’s kindness was hard to bear.
Only one stop left—Merry: Wine Merchant—the classiest booze seller in town. The little bell tinkled on the oak paneled door as I entered the big open shop with its long mahogany counter. Bottles of liquor and wine filled shelf after shelf from floor to high ceiling.
Michael Cullinan, the manager, popped out of the back room. A handsome man with perfectly slicked back blond hair and a smooth complexion, he was immaculately dressed and a little too pleased to see me.
“Hello Owen. How are you? What would you like today?” His effusive manner made my skin crawl. He knew I’d come for a bottle of the cheapest Australian wine.
“Fine, thank you. Can I have a bottle of Emu and twenty Carrolls, please?” I hated the rigmarole—couldn’t he just give me the drink and let me go!
He placed the wine and cigarettes on the counter. Then he came around to my side, beaming his slimy smile.
“Let me put these into your bag.”
Looming over me, he packed the bottle and yellow pack of cigarettes into the bag—far too close for comfort. I felt a hand patting my backside and jerked away.
Not only did this man make me physically uncomfortable, he knew too much about us. Mother and Michael Cullinan had been drinking buddies when she had been the affluent lady and he the employee. Now the roles were reversed: she depended on him to supply her with cheap drink.
On the other hand, Mother knew a lot about him. She told me of his vacations in Spain where he picked up young male lovers, a well-kept secret in Catholic Dungarvan. She found his attraction to me amusing—and it helped when the alcohol account got too bloated.
Escaping the shop, I lugged the heavy bags back to the caravan, trying to hurry without hurrying, hoping to remain unseen. Shopping was bad but worse was yet to come: I had to fill the water buckets.
I dumped the groceries in the caravan and filled the kettle with the last drops of water. Carrying the two metal buckets in each hand, I set off up Church Street, around the corner to the Mercy Convent School—an exercise in public humiliation.
In the convent schoolyard, I filled the buckets with water from a sluggish outside tap. Hidden behind the tall windows were dozens of girls in blue uniforms watching. My soul shriveled under those eyes, terrified all those females were looking at me, judging me; at any moment they might come streaming out the door.
Inch by slow inch the water rose toward the rim of first one bucket and then the other. As soon as I could—metal rims bruising my calves and water splashing my legs—I dragged the heavy buckets along the street, around the corner and down the hill to the caravan. Dropping them by the caravan door, shaky and sick inside, I knew I would have to endure the torment again in a few days time.
Over the weeks, our lives became intimately entwined—a scratchy couple ignoring each other yet privy to all bodily functions. To bathe, we heated up the water and sponged down using the blue washing-up basin; I went for a walk when it was her turn. Every now and then, as it overflowed, I dug another shit-pit in the corner behind the caravan. Each time we went, we threw in a shovel of dirt to keep down the smell. Everywhere I looked, everywhere I went Mother was there—in my space, in my face and under my skin.
Most exhausting was Mother’s rehashing of her old resentments. Whenever she was drunk, her bitterness slurred out in disjointed invective.
“Useless man, your bloody father—wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. Never was good for anything… made a complete mess of the farm, ruined my life. So stupid—shouldn’t have married him.”
The tirade went on and on, losing coherence as the alcohol took its toll. I tried hard not to listen but the poison filled the caravan, slowly seeping into my soul.
Finally it was too much. After lunch one day, I was washing the dishes. The shopping was done, the water buckets full and in my mind, the afternoon stretched long and lazy in front of me—nothing to do but read. Mother was drying the dishes beside me when she started in.
“We need paraffin. Go down to the hardware shop when you’re finished.”
Collecting a heavy can of paraffin from the hardware store was almost as bad as getting water.
“We’ve got enough for at least one more day. I just filled the stoves.”
“No we haven’t. It’s getting cold and the heater is empty.” Her voice had that hard edge.
“I’ll do it tomorrow. I’m not going to do it today,” I said loudly. Enough was enough. I wasn’t giving in this time.
“You’ll do it this afternoon. I’m fed up with you putting things off—just like your father.”
Her tone was nasty and I knew she was building up steam, ready to blow. She threw the dishtowel onto the low counter and pushed past me to sit on her bed-seat and light a cigarette in her twisted left hand. Her eyes tightened with irritation as she blew out a cloud of smoke.
So unfair! I did everything—endless dreadful tasks and never a thank you. Something inside me erupted. I shouted at the top of my voice, “You never do anything. I do everything. All you do is sit around drinking!”
I opened the door, picked up the basin and flung the dirty dish water against the wall. There—I’d said the unspeakable: no one was allowed to mention her drinking
“You ungrateful brat! You expect me to wait on you hand and foot while you sit around. You’re just like your father, useless and lazy. Do you think I would be here if it weren’t for you children?” She gestured furiously at the dingy surroundings.
I’d heard it a thousand times: “If it weren’t for you children.” Blaming us for the mess she made of her life.
“I’m not listening to your fucking rubbish anymore,” I screamed. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself.” My throat constricted but I managed to shriek, “I’m going.”
Then I strode out the open door and slammed it behind me. The caravan shook as I heard her muffled voice, “Get out and stay out.”
My head was whirled with a thousand angry thoughts; my chest felt as if it was about to explode. I headed down to the harbor, fighting back tears of frustration. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to give her the satisfaction. The bitch! I hated her: the sickening odor of her body, the stink of sour wine and cigarette ash, her horrible voice and endless demands.
At the concrete wall overlooking the bay, I stopped to get my bearing and turned left to walk through the leather factory. The stench of chemicals and rotting leather was overpowering but in my mood, I hardly noticed. Head down, hating everything, I trudged along the quay. With each step a tight voice in my head repeated: I can’t go back; I won’t go back.
Thoughts went round and round like a whirlwind, never resting, never finding an answer: I can’t stay—but how can I go with no money? Do I want to go back to Cardiff? Why am I here anyway? She’s driving me crazy. I can’t stand it.
Blindly, I crossed the bridge into Abbeyside and walked along the causeway. The breeze from the bay soothed me enough that I noticed the detached houses as I passed, each looking like a cardboard cutout—neat containers for tiny lives. These people can’t even imagine what I’m going through. No one’s ever had a mother like min.?
Around the bay, I reached the gray stone chapel on the headland, the last remnant of a ruined Augustinian abbey. I tried the handle on the oak door; it turned and I went inside the empty chapel and sat on a wooden pew. The light filtered through stained glass windows and cast colored patterns across the flagstones. The altar was bare except for two tall candles, the air quiet and still. Even if I was no longer a Catholic, I liked this ageless place, its simple monastic piety.
Wading through the toxic sludge in my head, I tried to come to a decision. On the one hand there was Mother and the caravan—no one in their right mind would want to live with her. On the other hand there was Dad, Whitchurch Road and school—that was the obvious choice. I should go back to Cardiff. I should tell Mother I was leaving and force her to give me money for the fare. She had to let me go.
It made perfect sense—but why didn’t it feel right? My mind went round another cycle of confused thoughts: There must be a reason why I’m here. Am I pretending to be the virtuous son? Do I have some sort of duty to this drunken crazy person? Why can’t I just leave? Why is it so hard?
When I thought of Cardiff, there was a feeling of wrongness. It felt like turning the clock backward, like a river flowing uphill—unnatural and unthinkable. Some part of me wouldn’t let me leave. There was no use pretending; it made no difference if I stayed through false duty, Mother’s manipulations, or plain stupidity something was forcing me to stay.
When I got up from the pew and left the chapel it was getting dark. An aura of peace emanated from those gray walls and something had settled inside me. Late that evening, I returned to the caravan to find Mother waiting with supper cooked and ready. Neither of us spoke much—and I didn’t tell her if I was staying or going. The next day we returned to the familiar routine—sleep, eat, read and do chores—and Mother was a little less harsh.
In bed, I looked at the body outline three feet away. The dim light reflected off a familiar blue satin eiderdown comforter rising up and down with each breath. The sight of that shimmering cloth drew me back to my first conscious memory as a two-year-old.
I climb on hands and knees up the long, long stairs, pull myself up on the top post and toddle into Mummy’s room. Mummy is sitting up in bed surrounded by white pillows. The bed is covered with a blue satin eiderdown; a fat corner hangs down close to my face. Mummy’s white frilly nighty is pulled to one side. She looks up and says something. She is holding a tiny bald baby to her left breast. I look at her feeding the baby. Immediately, a surge of red-hot sensation rushes down through my body from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.
What was that strange sensation? I never could make sense of it. All I knew was that sensation marked the end of all maternal softness. I do not remember ever being held and nurtured by my mother.
The Psychological Complex
A few months before I left for Ireland, I was forced to confront one aspect of my mother complex. Of course, I didn’t know what it was; all I knew was the deep discomfort I felt thinking or talking about my mother.
When I was eight-years-old at the convent primary school, Dawn Madigan had cruelly teased me about my mother not living with us. She was my first crush and I was devastated. It brought home to me how shameful my mother was; everything about her had to be kept hidden. Having a mother who was not a mother became a terrible secret, a splinter buried deep in my flesh. Around it grew layers of protective scar tissue that hid it from everyone, even myself.
Over the years, the secret festered. Mummy had not only abandoned us—she was the fountainhead of embarrassment and disgrace. Any mention of mothers put me on edge. Constantly on guard against personal questions, I had to be ready to redirect conversations towards safer topics.
For reasons that are mysterious, after the shipwreck I came to realize my feelings around Mummy were poisoning me. Like a rotting abscess on my psyche, I knew it had to be lanced to relieve the internal pressure. The only way was to confess my secret to someone.
Jim was my best and only friend at school, the person I talked to, mostly about science and radical politics. Confiding my secret to him directly was unthinkable, so after days of inner struggle, I reached a compromise: I would stealthily slip it into our ordinary conversation. His reactions to my confession would tell me if I was crazy or not.
I steeled myself. One morning, I maneuvered the conversation to get Jim talking about his own mother. Then pretending it was a casual comment, I said: My mother doesn’t live with us, hasn’t for a long time. She’s in Ireland. I waited for his horrified reaction, his look of shock and disgust—nothing! Jim didn’t seem to notice my humiliating admission. He just kept talking as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
The effect was immediate: a deep sense of relief and a feeling of dark energy dissipating followed by a spike of elation. Now I knew the truth—my sense of shame and embarrassment weren’t real, they were products of my own mind. They only had phantom power over me and I could change what I felt!
This revelation led to more insights. In chemistry, I’d learned about supersaturated solutions: a chemical is dissolved in a liquid to the limits of that liquid’s holding capacity. If you then drop a seed crystal into the solution, it crystallizes out according to the particular shape of that seed crystal.
I imagined my feelings as a saturated solution. A seed of shame had crept in and petrified everything inside me; my self had become organized around mother-shame. Telling my toxic secret to Jim somehow melted some of the petrified core allowing feelings to flow more freely.
Of course, I gained only partial and temporary relief. Complexes, particularly mother complexes, do not dissipate easily. Think of them as dark tangled networks that congregate around a core of psychic pain—hiding it, protecting it and gaining in power with every experience connected, however tenuously, with that pain.
The pain of trauma and deprivation create the most potent gravitational fields; they condense all related experiences into a tightly organized, highly charged ball of complex energy. Carelessly touch that energy—a threatening word, a sudden gesture, a disappointed look, a turning away—and it detonates. The resulting psychic blast of fear, rage, sadness, inadequacy or confusion takes over that person’s consciousness and actions. They are no longer themselves, and in that moment, they become the complex.
Jung referred to complexes as splinter psyches; they have a life of their own and, when triggered, rule our thoughts, our lives and our relationships. The most extreme examples are found in Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) in which the complexes have become autonomous identities with distinct personalities, memories and desires.
One of my most difficult clients often looked puzzled when entering my office. When I asked what was wrong, she replied with a timid question: Have I been here before? We’d been meeting twice weekly for a number of years in that office—but that particular splinter personality had no idea.
DID is the extreme of psychic disintegration but all of us have complexes out of sync with our ego or ordinary sense of self. We get triggered and react in ways that are discordant with who we think we are. Road rage is an obvious example: a driver cuts us off and we immediately go into an angry rant and act irrationally, even dangerously. All our unresolved and repressed frustrations have seized our consciousness and in that moment we are rage.
Our more overt complexes get triggered close to home in our familial relationships. Some families live in a minefield of complexes; everyone has to tread carefully so as not to detonate an emotional explosion. Close relationships are where we behave disgracefully, childishly; relationship is where our devils have their day. Spousal arguments get stuck in the need to be right, to have the last word. At their core these fights are fuelled by childhood feelings of not being heard or seen. Similarly, getting hurt by a careless comment reflects our early lack of love and attention and the complex of inadequacy we built around the pain.
We have to acknowledge and deal with our complexes. Whenever we emotionally overreact, whenever our actions give rise to regret or guilt, we know a complex has captured us. We create justifications and rationalizations—it was all her fault; I didn’t start it; he made me feel this way—but that never helps. Our first task is to admit that our justifications serve to keep the complex entangled and unresolved. We have to accept our flaws, know we are far from whole and that primitive aspects of our psyche have power over us. Then we shine the light of awareness into our inner darkness and become more who we are meant to be.
The Mother Complex
Of all our complexes, the mother complex is the most problematic. In chapter 4 (Mother Church), I touched briefly on the mother archetype and its reflection in the good enough mother. Unlike simpler complexes whose core is pain, at the beating heart of our mother complexes is the archetypal power of the Great Mother.
There lies the problem. Archetypes, like everything in our psyches, have a light and dark side, a positive and negative aspect. For every angel there is a devil; for Kuan Yin, the elegant goddess of compassion, there is Kali the forbidding goddess of death and change. The bounteous generosity of Mother Nature is evident during warm summer months. In winter our Mother becomes cold, withholding and stingy.
Every human mother is imperfect. Oft times she is filled with love, her breasts overflowing with milk and the infant feels satiated and fulfilled. Other times, she is irritable, harried and under-slept; her reserves and breasts are empty so the infant is hungry, distressed and full of frustration. As we grow up, constellated around the mother archetype accumulate innumerable experiences of satisfaction and frustration with our mother. These fashion our particular mother complexes, an uneasy pact between the Good Mother and the Terrible Mother.
My mother was not good enough; consequently she embodied the darker terrible aspects of the mother archetype far more than the loving generous aspects. No wonder my own complex was complicated; no wonder as a child I wet the bed and woke with bad dreams.
The subject of every child’s nightmares, the Terrible Mother is the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz, the gigantic spider in the Lord of the Rings, Baba Yaga in Russian fairytales. She is the horror in the night, the dread of being devoured and the sense that something, at the edge of our awareness, is out to get us. Ultimately, the negative mother complex is a bleeding wound in the heart.
In many of my dreams, the negative mother appeared as a female figure pursuing me through ruined landscapes. Once, a beautiful Madonna dressed in medieval robes stabbed me in the heart with a bejeweled dagger. I felt a piercing pain in my chest and woke up knowing I was dreadfully injured. In a memorable nightmare, a giant invisible spider chased me through endless dark tunnels. Eventually though spiritual intervention, I was able to make the spider materialize into a recognizable shape. There, instead of a black body on eight massive spider legs appeared my mother’s bloated and distorted head.
My negative mother complex comprised a swirl of self-doubt and anxiety orbiting a black hole of shame. I did not know the meaning of love; I could not trust in anything soft or maternal. I emotionally gave up on anything motherly—yet the Great Mother did not give up on me.
Why did I stay with my mother? A Freudian would say I was driven by an Oedipal desire to possess my mother and displace my father—a far too simplistic idea. My motives were complicated, labyrinthine: I remember the elusive wish to save her and be a good son; I knew I could not return to Cardiff to live a deadened life. But there was far more going on than I can ever know or explain. Destiny had me by the throat and would not let me go. Staying in the caravan was the first tentative steps on the long hard journey to resolve my negative mother complex.
Read the next chapter: 10: Learning to Lounge